Asynchronous Discussions Online: Challenges and Suggestions
This blog post was co-authored with HASTAC Scholar Norah Elmagraby.
You may have heard the anecdote from a friend. Or you may have experienced it yourself. You log into your online course to contribute your weekly post to the discussion thread. You try to navigate your way through the comments shared by your 24 other colleagues. One student's post led to a shift in topic. Another student's comment resulted in an entirely different internal conversation. You have no idea what some students are referring back to. You find yourself overwhelmed and confused, wondering when the discussion thread will bring you some enlightenment. This is one such issue that we have addressed in Emory Foundations for Online Teaching (EFOT).
Since 2014, Emory University’s EFOT has taught graduate students about best practices for teaching online. EFOT is offered through a partnership between the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, and the Laney Graduate School Office of Professional Development and Career Planning, with support from the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence. Though it has undergone different iterations, EFOT is now run as a six-week intensive course, conducted fully online. Due to the increased demand for online teacher training from graduate students, Emory will run two sessions of EFOT this summer.
Our instructional team collaborated with graduate student participants to develop best practices for leading and organizing asynchronous and synchronous sessions online. We have added to these lists as new ideas emerged throughout the course. This post focuses on asynchronous discussions. You can find our blog post about synchronous discussions here.
The goals for this post are two-fold:
•We wanted to provide a helpful guide for leading online discussions with suggestions developed by EFOT participants.
•We also wanted to highlight the rich outcomes that can result from collaborating with students about how to be better educators in an online environment.
Asynchronous Discussion Challenges and Suggestions
1. - Challenge: How do I organize discussion boards so that they don’t become overwhelmed by lots of comments and different internal discussions? They can get ‘messy’, and it’s difficult to keep students engaged.
- Suggestions: Keep discussion groups small (6-8 students is a good number, though 10-12 people can work). You can also create separate discussion boards with different topics or themes related to the relevant content. Students can choose the question that they are most interested in and contribute to that discussion thread. It’s also helpful to set a maximum word length (approximately 250 words).
2. - Challenge: How do I keep up with the discussion thread posts and balance students’ response times? It seems that students like to wait until the last minute to post, which means that they aren’t engaging with each other, and I have to read a series of posts at the last minute.
- Suggestions: If available in your Learning Management System (LMS), you can turn on settings that notify you when students post. You can also set deadlines that encourage student engagement (and minimize the issue with last-minute posts). For example, you can ask students to initially post by Wednesday at midnight and to respond to two of their colleagues’ posts by Sunday at midnight.
3. - Challenge: How do I demonstrate that I am paying attention to the discussion thread without becoming overwhelmed by responding to all student posts?
- Suggestions: Decide whether or not you want to participate in the discussion and to what degree. By attempting to respond to every post, instructors are bound to experience asynchronous discussion burnout themselves. One option is to respond to a few students’ post. Another is to provide a post that summarizes the students’ comments. You can even highlight comments that you found particularly compelling.
4. - Challenge: How do I make sure that students aren’t just posting to meet course requirements intead of engaging with their colleagues in the discussion thread?
- Suggestions: Provide clear expectations and post guidelines in advance. Let students know that they will only receive credit for advancing the discussion. (Make sure to provide clear examples of what ‘advancing the discussion’ means). They cannot simply receive credit for restating something that their colleagues already mentioned. Also, encourage them to address each other in their responses.
5. - Challenge: I want students to take more ownership over leading asynchronous discussions. What can I do?
- Suggestions: You can do this is a variety of ways.
•Assign weekly discussion leaders. Those leaders can be responsible for creating and posting discussion questions/prompts (including images or primary sources) related to the relevant content. They can respond to their colleagues’ posts or provide a summary of the discussion when the week concludes.
•Break the class into two groups. The first group can be responsible for providing the initial feedback by a set deadline to the question or prompt that you provide. The second group can then comment on those initial posts.
6. - Challenge: How can I make the discussion thread become a space where students can synthesize course material in the venues where students encounter course content?
- Suggestions: Make sure to connect topics, themes, and ideas covered in your asynchronous and synchronous discussions. Create prompts that require students to reference material addressed during the synchronous sessions. (Keep in mind that students may be unable to participate in synchronous sessions, due to a series of issues related to access. Build in room for flexibility or alternative assignments, if necessary).
7. - Challenge: We’re approaching the mid-point of the semester, and students seem to be experiencing ‘asynchronous discussion fatigue’ after posting 250-word weekly responses since week one. How do I reinvigorate their enthusiasm for (and the quality of) their posts?
- Suggestions: Change it up. Instead of asking for an initial written response, ask them to post an image or links to current events that are related to the relevant content.
8. - Challenge: How do I deal with questions and answers that come up when students are interacting with the asynchronous content in real time?
- Suggestions: Create a running discussion thread for students to post questions. Other students can respond if they know the answer. If several students note that they had similar questions, you can respond to all students in one place. If students feel uncomfortable asking questions in a public forum, create an FAQ form on Google Forms that you check before each class.
Ultimately, it will take some trial and error and patience from students and with yourself to determine what keeps students engaged while meeting course objectives. But great possibilities exist to be creative while maximizing students’ learning through asynchronous discussions.
If you have any suggestions that you would like to contribute, please feel free to comment!
*Bailey Betik (PhD Student in English) and Elizabeth Sajewski (PhD Student in Environmental Health Science) are also members of the EFOT instructional team and digital specialist interns at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship.